The diplomatic search for Middle East peace is about to accelerate again, with the idea of declaring a Palestinian state as a way to force negotiations at the heart of discussions.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets with President Bush Friday and Saturday to press the United States to move beyond visions and consultations to decisions and timetables. His visit, followed by a scheduled return to the White House Monday of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, puts the Mideast back in Washington's international spotlight, even as some observers worried that a certain momentum for pursuing peace was being lost.
The latest suicide bombing, which yesterday left at least 17 people dead when a bomber struck a crowded bus in northern Israel, is sure to trouble the conversations. But many Mideast experts say that even without the violence that has accompanied US contacts with the region's leaders in recent months, the US is not prepared to take dramatic steps.
"There is not in the administration any agreement on next steps, let alone any agreement amongst the Israelis and Arabs on where to go next," says Bernard Reich, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. "With so many balls in the air and so little trust among the parties, no one anticipates any dramatic moves any time soon."
Still, the US is aware that Mr. Bush must lay out more details for the American vision for the region, US officials say perhaps in a speech preceding an international Mideast conference that could take place in July. And tomorrow, Mr. Mubarak is expected to advocate bold steps when he meets with Bush.
Taking a cue from an American president who has endorsed the goal of a Palestinian state and who even speaks of "Palestine," Mubarak will emphasize that it is in America's interest to "set a framework" for declaring a Palestinian state as early as next year, Egyptian officials say. The Mubarak visit includes an overnight and two days of conversation at Camp David the Egyptian leader's first visit to the presidential retreat, heavy with symbolism for the Middle East.
Mr. Sharon favors a slower, step-by-step approach that emphasizes security first. In his sixth meeting with Bush, he is expected to promote his view that most important now is an extended period prior to political talks, during which security measures would be enhanced and reform of Palestinian security and government institutions pursued.
Egyptian officials, starting from the position that Israelis and Palestinians won't advance toward peace unless pushed along, say that the US must press both sides to compromise.
"The two-state solution is the basis for everything, but it's now time to move beyond all the visions to put a deadline. You have to put a timetable on everything," says Nabil Osman, head of Egypt's State Information Service.
Part of Mubarak's aim is to reestablish Egypt as the key Arab country in the Mideast peace process a position it lost its grip on after Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah proposed in March a land-for-peace-and-normalized-relations plan that was later endorsed by Arab countries. But Mr. Osman says that foremost, Mubarak wants to impress upon Bush "the danger for American interests and all of our interests" if Palestinians are not given a sense of hope that statehood and more control over their own future is more than a vision.
Mubarak's plan goes further than the Saudi peace plan, Osman says, in that it goes beyond principles to timetables of what must happen when. The idea would be to declare a Palestinian state early next year, after Palestinian political and security structure reforms were in place, but before the settlement of final issues, such as the full and final borders of a Palestinian state, jurisdiction over Jerusalem, and refugees' right of return.
Egypt is not opposed to the American idea of a peace conference, but Osman says, "it will be a flop" unless there is a specific agenda designed to address both sides' concerns and move forward on a Palestinian state. Originally slated for "early summer," the conference has slipped to at least mid-July possibly in Turkey.
But with little agreement to base it on, the conference could slip further to late in the year, with only a less ambitious meeting of officials this summer.
Despite Bush's call on April 4 for a Palestinian state, it is not clear where the US falls on the debate on whether to move directly to political issues, or proceed incrementally from a security focus. This week, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said the president's "strategy" is "an integrated, three-part approach establishing effective Palestinian security performance, renewing a serious political process that aims at a two-state solution ... responding to the humanitarian needs" of the Palestinians.
But in the current atmosphere of mistrust, few observers expect the US to risk proposing a peace plan that could be doomed from the outset.
"The US shouldn't come up with a peace plan until the Israelis and Palestinians are ready to make some hard choices for peace," says Raymond Tanter, a Mideast expert who worked the issue in the Reagan White House.
As for other experts who insist this is precisely the time for the US to impose a settlement, Mr. Tanter says, "We've tried that several times. Reagan put a plan on the table in 1981, and the only outcome was that he lost prestige for proposing something the parties could not agree to."